Inside the new, £140million Macallan distillery

You hardly notice the Macallan’s new distillery – until you get inside. Nina Caplan discovers the mystery of malt in a modern masterpiece

Words by Nina Caplan

Distillery from below

The drive across Scotland from Aberdeen to Craigellachie is beautiful, past pale gold barley fields, foaming streams and hills jagged with silhouetted pines. We pass Mortlach distillery, then Glenfiddich, then Balvenie; Glenlivet is a pleasant half-hour walk away. But where is the much trumpeted The Macallan’s new distillery?

The Macallan’s new distillery does not shout as you drive through the grounds. The architects were instructed to ‘reveal the mystery’, and they have done so in the most subtle way. It’s the presence of triangular windows in what look like gentle hills near the River Spey that makes you look twice: they turn out not to be gentle hills at all, but part of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ attempt to create the distillery to end all distilleries. 

Ken Grier, The Macallan’s creative director, meets us in Easter Elchies, a mellow 18th-century house that The Macallan – founded in 1824 but owned since 1999 by spirits company Edrington – refers to as its spiritual home. He is genial, greying, slightly downcast. He has spent more than 20 years building The Macallan into a global brand; after six years creating this wonder of the Scotch world, at a final bill of £140 million ($185m), he announced his retirement. Our September meeting is his last official duty. 

From a first-floor bedroom, I catch my first real sight of the new building. A glowing grey path of polished Belgian concrete narrows towards an entrance cut into those repurposed hills, which seem to hover above a wall of dark glass. It’s stunning – and slightly scary. Visitors walk up the path, into the future. 

The Macallan distillery and visitor experience on the Easter Elchies estate
The Macallan distillery and visitor experience on the Easter Elchies estate, home to the leading luxury single malt since 1824

That future will contain abundant Macallan. Production can increase by a third, and there is room for more tanks, if desired. ‘You just take out another wall,’ says architect Graham Stirk. ‘It’s very tidy.’ Since the new distillery is effectively starting from scratch, everything had to be replicated for identical results. The Macallan’s distinctive ‘curiously small’ stills were handmade by the company’s longtime copper specialist Forsyths, from ‘death masks’ of the old stills in the former distillery. The atmosphere of the barrel room is calibrated so that the whisky ages the same way. 

Why go to such trouble? The obvious solution would have been to extend the old distillery and add more warehouses to the windowless 1930s structures among the grass behind the house. They will be adding warehouses, in fact, but Grier believes that a company that claims to enhance your life should do nothing that isn’t life-enhancing – certainly not a visitor experience. And when Grier believes something, he usually manages to convert those around him.

The architects’ elevations for The Macallan distillery
The architects’ elevations for The Macallan distillery: southeast, northwest, northeast and southwest

They held an architecture competition, he tells me as we walk up that grey path. It was a tempting but difficult commission: all those pipes, all those warehouses. Stirk and Toby Jeavons show me the computer rendering for their original pitch: it’s marvellous. The turf peels off the hill to show the copper stills and mash tun inside. The building’s shape resembles a burial cairn, an obeisance to Scotland’s ancient past. When you enter the enormous circular space with another, enclosed circle at its centre, you are walking into a modern rendering of a broch, the double-walled, Scottish fortress that was the pinnacle of Iron Age wall construction. ‘We wanted Scottish, but not kilts and sporrans,’ says Stirk. ‘It needed to be something of the land.’ The learning curve was steep: ‘The pipework connections are mind-boggling,’ says Jeavons. Wasn’t it daunting, especially given the premium placed on renewable energy and sustainability? Well, yes, says Stirk, ‘but then Heathrow was our first airport; the British Museum our first museum extension.’ Sometimes, a little naivety can enable you to come at a problem from a new angle.

The view towards The Macallan distillery production facility
The view towards the production facility
Axial view of the still houses at The Macallan distillery
Axial view of the still houses

Grier understands tangential solutions. He is a photography fan who has turned his passion into a marketing plan. There have been special editions of The Macallan whisky with photographs by Rankin, Mario Testino, Annie Liebovitz. Six Magnum photographers documented the building’s construction: there’s now a permanent gallery in the distillery and there will, of course, be an accompanying special edition. If your product needs to stand apart from competitors, you can learn plenty from photographers who now compete, theoretically, with anyone with an iPhone. 

We eat a light lunch of haggis croquettes and local charcuterie in the main space, so vast it could fit the dome of St Paul’s. Beside us, a glass wall rises into the stratosphere; 840 rare bottles of The Macallan whisky glow within it. The sense of power, of possibility, is awesome. ‘We moved half a million tonnes of earth then put it all back, as landscaping,’ says Grier. There are 30m (100ft) concrete fins buried beneath, holding the structure up. ‘When they were covered, I had a little cry,’ says Grier. ‘They’re so beautiful, and nobody will ever seem them.’ They will, though, because there’s a photograph of them in the gallery – a different perspective on The Macallan’s brand idea of mystery and revelation. 

A model of a cask being toasted at The Macallan distillery
A model of a cask being toasted at the distillery
Rows of The Macallan whisky on display
Rows of The Macallan on display

They are doing something right. The Macallan whisky is the third-biggest single malt by volume, and collectors love it. Weeks before our arrival, The Macallan released Genesis, a limited edition of 2,500 bottles, to mark the distillery’s opening. People camped outside the new gates; the police closed roads. The initial price was £495 ($650); it has risen considerably since. Inside, there’s a signed lithographic print of the distillery, on archival paper from a 15th-century Italian mill. Grier didn’t quite make clear, when he asked for Stirk’s signature, that he would need it so many times. ‘It took him three days,’ he says, impressed but unrepentant.

Grier gestures towards an enormous glass wall, the giant stills visible beyond. This was the solution to keeping visitors connected to the process, which proved complicated, with the safety issues of visitors near explosive spirit. It’s free-standing, says Jeavons. ‘If the roof collapsed, it’d stay up.’ In case of fire, gallons of water will pour down it. Checking this cost £300,000 ($396,000). I arrived wondering how one spent £140 million on a building, but I’m starting to understand. 

The question, with a four-figure whisky:
is it worth it?

A 60-year-old Macallan recently sold for a record-breaking £1.5m at Sotheby’s. How can a bottle of whisky be worth so much? Find out here.

We wind up the internal wood-lined staircase for the tour. We are high enough to peer down into the mash tun – Speyside’s biggest – and the washbacks, which get through 600 tonnes of barley a week, some of it home-grown. The wash is split between two short-necked spirit stills per washback, producing a heavy, dense vapour; this makes the signature rich Macallan style. The new building has 36 of them.

All this technical information is conveyed by a guide and a series of iPad-operated installations. One, of Easter Elchies, opens like a doll’s house to show the interior; the real house stands behind, like an oversized imitation – or a photograph. There’s no break in the view: just glass, loosely inserted into the undulating wooden roof to prevent cracking, because, says Jeavons, ‘that roof has plenty of bounce’. Stirk shows me the cross section of the building, roof undulating repetitively until the entrance, where it rises slightly higher. ‘It’s like a heartbeat on a graph,’ he says – and it is. 

The machinery beneath distillery's still house
The steam pipework and process machinery beneath the still house

There are two walk-in circular spaces, like upended barrels, with film installations; they’re superbly done, a real enhancement to the informal tasting that follows. We return downstairs and enter the circular centre. It’s very dark until an eerie noise begins and lights start to bounce, illuminating individual barrels. The performance swells to a cunningly lit finale as the rows of barrels burst into view. It’s theatre, but also a reminder of what a fabulous invention – by the Gauls, fellow Celts to the Scots – the barrel is. As the lights fade, Grier is silhouetted against a barrel backdrop. ‘That’s the problem,’ he says. ‘I love it all too much.’ This dream made stone and glass, wood and whisky, is his legacy – a modern manifestation of an idea at least as old as the cairns.

Before we leave, he offers a dram: Macallan No. 6, aged in first-fill sherry casks, presented in a slender Lalique decanter, creamy, dark, aromatic with figs and dates, costing around £2,500 ($3,300). The question – with a four-figure whisky, as with a nine-figure distillery – lingers like a perfume: is it worth it? Grier has tried to make the experience about more than cash and, to do so, has persuaded his employers to build a mind-blowingly expensive and complex building that celebrates the seeming simplicity of a ‘big shed buried below ground’ (Stirk) and a production process that’s ‘basically boiling a big kettle’ (Grier). The result is a startlingly modern construction honouring a centuries-old product that places a premium on ageing. It’s a complete contradiction. But then so, arguably, is the notion of paying a fortune for a drink created to soothe the ills of tax-dodging Highland peasants. Branding is partly about standing out, partly about polishing history. And this distillery achieves both, with elegance.